Published on Friday, June 10, 2011 by The Toronto Star
When Breaking the Law Is Justified
The recent bad news about climate change thundered through the scientific community like those twisters through the
First, the International Energy Association (IEA) announced global greenhouse gas emissions hit record highs in 2010, threatening to catapult Earth over the 2C rise in temperature that, scientists predict, will lead to cataclysmic changes.
We’re already up one degree, attributed to human causes. That’s enough to cause widespread drought, wildfires, flooding, extreme weather — and shrinkage of the polar ice caps.
Says Nobel Prize-winning meteorologist Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at
The other climate bombshell came when the
On a per-capita basis,
Earlier this month, the government quietly tabled its annual report on how
“Unfortunately, far too many are in denial and political action is at a standstill,” observes Kevin Trenberth, Distinguished Senior Scientist at the Boulder, Colo.-based National Center for Atmospheric Research.
“Once the problem is so obvious to everyone, it is far, far too late to do anything about it,” says Trenberth.
That sense of urgency is why a growing number of scientists are advocating non-violent civil disobedience to shake up governments, industry and media.
Although there is some political disagreement, the general scientific consensus is that in order to head off mass extinctions, huge migrations of climate refugees and, yes, global warring, carbon dioxide emissions should be cut back to 350 parts per million from the current 390 or so.
“We need to do (civil disobedience) on a mass scale,” says leading American environmentalist and activist Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Eaarth
The idea is spreading.
“Non-violent civil disobedience is justified when there is a history of long-standing harm or violation of people’s fundamental rights, when legal and policy means have failed to reduce the harms and violations, and when there is little time remaining to address the problems,” wrote University of New England professor John Lemons and Penn State’s Donald Brown in April in the online version of Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics.
“Simply put, people do not have the right to harm others who have not given their consent to be harmed, and this is exactly what the
Environmental activists have long engaged in civil disobedience. Greenpeace, to name one group, has specialized in it.
In 2009, 20 activists were arrested after they scaled Parliament’s West Block and covered it with banners demanding government action on climate change. On June 2, two members were arrested and removed from an “Arctic survival pod” suspended from an oil rig off the coast of
Noted Australian climate advocate Clive Hamilton (Affluenza
“Those who engage in civil disobedience are usually the most law-abiding citizens — those who have most regard for the social interest and the keenest understanding of the democratic process,” he emails from
Civil disobedience has a proud tradition. It helped bring about civil rights in the
The member-supported Council of Canadians has engaged in all sorts of civil disobedience, including sandbagging towns and provincial legislatures to point out how rising sea levels would affect them.
“It’s not an action to be taken lightly,” says Andrea Harden-Donahue, the Council’s energy and climate justice campaigner. “We do believe that all other democratic means should be pursued first and continue to be pursued, even with a civil disobedience strategy.
“But we feel that it is justified to address climate change, especially given that the Harper government has refused to take action, and because of the urgency.”
Most lawmakers — and even most people — don’t seem to think much of the tactic. Witness police actions against non-violent stunts such as teddy bear catapults at global summits, or citizen complaints of tied-up traffic during demonstrations.
How many Canadians say that last year’s peaceful protesters at the Toronto G20 Summit should have just stayed home if they didn’t want to be tackled, cuffed with plastic cables and tossed into cages without charges.
“People from across the political spectrum love to praise civil disobedience — as long as we’re talking about past social movements,” argues
“Most people are divorced from the history of social change,” notes Greenpeace
One much talked-about recent case of civil disobedience within the scientific community is that of NASA climatologist and
Hansen, who calls climate change “the great moral challenge of this century,” has been helping other activists who get into legal trouble, including six Greenpeace members tried in
With Hansen’s expert testimony, they convinced the court that, despite the expensive havoc they wreaked, even greater damage — climate change — was being prevented.
The acquittals shocked both government and industry. The activists were found not guilty by reason of “lawful excuse” — a judgment that opens the door for more climate justice civil disobedience.
More than 3,000 delegates from 183 countries are currently in the midst of the two-week session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in
The reports from there have not been encouraging.
The world’s 21 developed nations have not fulfilled their promises or financial pledges to the parts of the world that will most suffer from climate change.
“Now, more than ever, it is critical that all efforts are mobilized toward living up to this commitment,” said UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres. “We are getting into very risky territory.”
“I don’t think most people realize how little time we have left,” warns Lester Brown, founder of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute and author of the just-published World on the Edge
Antonia Zerbisias is a columnist for the Toronto Star. In addition to her Star columns, you can read Antonia - and talk back to her - on her blog Broadsides.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs